In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John J. Ratey, MD, explains, “The neurons in the brain connect to one another through ‘leaves’ on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.” Physical activity increases key proteins that your baby’s brain needs in order to grow.
In addition to enabling your baby to gather knowledge through movement, physical activity enhances cognitive ability and growth of brain cells. It also reduces stress by keeping cortisol and other stress-related hormones in check. When your child moves, her body pumps more blood to her brain, and the blood provides oxygen that nourishes her brain tissue. Many studies show that the positive cognitive effects of physical activity occur throughout life. This evidence gives parents even greater incentive to make physical activity routine for their babies.
One connection between physical movement and brain development is your baby’s progression toward bilateral coordination, or crossing her midline. She has achieved bilateral coordination when both sides of her brain and body work in tandem, and she takes actions that cross from one side of her body to the other (for instance, she reaches across her body to grasp a toy or uses her right hand to touch her left knee). This type of brain-body coordination is essential to reading, writing, playing sports, dancing, and performing many everyday activities. It begins to appear prominently in your child’s movements at about three or four years of age.
Here are a few methods you can use to get your baby moving in ways that increase knowledge, promote brain health and growth, and develop bilateral coordination:
- Play with your baby—Take at least 10 minutes every day to play with your baby, through tummy time, yoga, massage, swimming, and developmental exercises. Your baby feels most secure when she is on the floor and you meet her at her level.
- Give her space—Be sure your baby has a safe open area, both inside and outside, to move her body—to roll, crawl, or walk freely.
- Practice crossing the midline—Move a toy across the room so that your baby’s eyes can follow it. As she begins to make more physical movements, offer activities that cross her midline. For example, play pat-a-cake, or practice windmills together—spread your arms and alternate touching the opposite side of your body with each hand.
- Provide toys that encourage movement—Give your baby balls, blocks, push toys, and pull toys.
- Promote fine-motor connections—Give her small objects to hold. Encourage her to turn pages when you read. Give her toys with tools, zippers, buttons, and other objects to manipulate. Give her objects to pick up off the floor. Drawing with crayons or chalk stimulates her brain on many levels.
- Model daily exercise—Take time for your own workout. Show your baby that you make your physical fitness a priority, too.
- Be an active family—Hike, bike, swim, or ski. These activities nourish your child’s brain and build healthy habits for life.